Ishiba admits job at risk over Atago accident

Defense minister may go after investigation ends


Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba indicated Friday he may resign after the investigation into the Feb. 19 collision involving the Aegis destroyer Atago and a trawler is wrapped up and preventive measures are established.

“Yes, there is that possibility,” Ishiba told reporters Friday morning when asked if he would consider some action to take responsibility for the accident, in which the trawler Seitoku Maru was run over off Chiba Prefecture. The father-son crew were still missing Friday.

“Without the willingness (to take responsibility,) you cannot carry out the duties of a state minister,” he said.

Nevertheless, Ishiba also indicated he would not step down immediately, repeating his earlier remark that he was asked by relatives of the crew of the trawler to clarify exactly what happened and establish measures to prevent a recurrence.

“My responsibility is to respond to the expectations of people experiencing hardship,” he said.

Ishiba has said he would not hesitate to step down if any coverup concerning the accident is revealed.

Political pressure, from both the ruling and opposition camps, has mounted on Ishiba to step down.

Ishiba, Vice Defense Minister Kohei Masuda and Maritime Self-Defense Force brass have repeatedly flip-flopped in their remarks on the accident and how information was delivered within the ministry to top defense officials.

On Friday, lawmakers continued denouncing Ishiba and Masuda during Diet sessions, as political battles over the expected passage of the fiscal 2008 budget intensified at the Lower House the same day.

At a budget committee session of the Lower House, Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Seiji Maehara charged that Masuda is not qualified to be the top administrative official of the Defense Ministry.

Maehara noted that Masuda has insisted he cannot recall what he and other defense officials, including Ishiba, discussed during an interview with the Atago’s navigator.

The navigator was helicoptered from the ship directly to the Defense Ministry’s headquarters in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward six hours after the 4:07 a.m. accident.

Ishiba and Masuda initially did not disclose that they had met with the navigator before the Atago arrived at the MSDF base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, that evening, when Japan Coast Guard officials boarded the destroyer to confiscate evidence and interview key crew members.

The Defense Ministry has an agreement with the coast guard not to independently contact key crew members if an MSDF ship is involved in an accident with a nonmilitary ship, in order to avoid the appearance of colluding with key witnesses to make up a story or destroy evidence to favor themselves in the event of a lawsuit.

Criticizing Masuda for quizzing the navigator, Maehara said, “Whether he can’t recall what was discussed or whether he’s hiding what he knows, it’s bad either way.”

According to the Japan Coast Guard, which has investigative authority over crimes and accidents at sea, none of its officials was notified in advance of the interview.

According to Masuda, an MSDF officer based in Yokosuka claimed that he notified coast guard officials of the interview in advance. But Masuda admitted that the ministry cannot rule out the possibility that the statement is erroneous.

The officer, whose name is being withheld, submitted a written statement to the ministry saying he called a coast guard official, but he is not sure of either the name or title of the official, Masuda said.